Crossing Borders: Writing The Jungle Pooja Puri
Earlier this year, the UK government announced its decision to end the Dubs Amendment. Like many, I too was disappointed by the verdict. The closure of the Calais refugee camp, more infamously known as ‘The Jungle’, resulted in a large number of young people being displaced onto the streets. The site had been the focus of much debate in recent years and its closure came under intense media scrutiny. The process was distressing to witness. Residents walked away from makeshift homes, belongings in hand. Others clashed with police in a desperate attempt to keep the lives they had created. They had all come here hoping for a second chance. Instead they found themselves moving onto a path of yet more uncertainty.
Such images, of course, are not unique to ‘The Jungle’. The war in Syria has driven countless people from their homes. Many now find themselves in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Others continue to brave the journey across the sea to Europe in the hope of making a better life for themselves.
I was initially driven to write The Jungle after reading an article about the discovery of a body on the Norwegian coast. A young man had bought himself a wetsuit in the hope of swimming across the Channel. The thought of the courage and desperation involved in making such a decision really stayed with me. I began researching more about the camp. The more I read, the more I realised how young some of its residents were. I saw many harrowing accounts of boys, too young to be called men, attempting to jump a train in order to reach England. One had seen his cousin killed before his eyes. Others were badly injured. And yet each of them spoke of their future with hope. They had come this far, after all. They would try again. They would keep trying.
It was this most human determination which stood out for me whilst writing the story. When ‘The Jungle’ was first created it was little more than a clutch of tents. When it closed in 2016, it had grown into a society complete with shops and food stalls. The residents had endeavoured to create for themselves some semblance of normality. Nothing epitomized this idea more than a photograph of a group of young boys playing football between a cluster of muddied tents. With their futures so uncertain, they had taken control in the only way they could – through a game of football.
Although the camp has now closed, the futures of these young people remain largely unknown. Earlier this year, aid organisations reported that refugees, particularly unaccompanied minors, were returning to Calais. Many have taken to sleeping rough on the streets, yet media coverage has noticeably lessened since the camp’s closure. In our current fast-paced technological climate, it is increasingly easy to become desensitized to the stories we see or hear on media outlets.
That is why, I believe, books are so important. They do not allow us to forget. They do not let us switch to another channel or click away. Instead, they make us confront these realities. They allow us to ask questions. The power of imagination should not be underestimated. It can help us cross borders – to fully understand that those caught up in this terrible situation, young and old alike, are no different to us.
There was a story Jahir used to tell me. About how the first humans were born with wings. Can you imagine what that would be like? To fly anywhere in the world without worrying about having the right papers? Mico has left his family, his home, his future. Setting out in search of a better life, he instead finds himself navigating one of the world's most inhospitable environments - the Jungle. For Mico, just one of many 'unaccompanied children', the Calais refugee camp has a wildness, a brutality all of its own. A melting pot of characters, cultures, and stories, the Jungle often seems like its own strange world. But despite his ambitions to escape, Mico is unable to buy his way out from the 'Ghost Men' - the dangerous men with magic who can cross borders unnoticed. Alone, desperate, and running out of options, the idea of jumping onto a speeding train to the UK begins to feel worryingly appealing. But when Leila arrives at the camp one day, everything starts to change. Outspoken, gutsy, and fearless, she shows Mico that hope and friendship can grow in the most unusual places, and maybe, just maybe, they'll show you the way out as well.